The tension between authority and the rebel has always been exquisite in rugby – and at times, of course, transformative. But has rugby ever, in all its tempestuous double-century of fury, repression and defiance, come across a phenomenon like Mourad Boudjellal?
How you feel about ‘Mourad’ (he has surely earned the right to be known by first name alone) will depend on which side of angels you align yourself with – the authorities or the freedom fighters – but really Mourad is compelling because he transcends such stereotypes.
EPCR have fined him €75,000 for defending one of his Toulon players, Mathieu Bastareaud, against accusations of homophobia and denouncing EPCR and its due processes. And so rugby faces its latest crisis, whereby a governing body levies a statement sanction on a miscreant in the name of the usual causes – upholding rugby’s good name and all that – and the miscreant looks blankly at the charge sheet, shrugs, refuses to pay, refuses even to appeal (for that would suggest he gives a shit about due process) and instead announces he’ll sue for defamation. And, in this case, he’s plenty rich enough to see that through.
In so doing, Mourad highlights an ethical dilemma rugby’s lumbering authorities are ill-equipped to handle. When does homophobia become homophobia, and should an individual be prosecuted for it?
Already the sport has tied itself in knots. EPCR may have nothing to do with Rugby Australia, but they are united by the overarching canopy of ‘Rugby’, whose good name EPCR invoked in its judgement. The responses to Bastareaud’s impetuous cry of ‘faggot’ during a match (three-week ban) and Israel Folau’s thought-out position of eternal damnation for homosexuals unless they repent of their ‘sins’ (absolutely no punishment whatsoever) are clearly incompatible.
Mourad’s protestation earlier this year boiled down to the contention that bigotry is an attitude, not name-calling. To resort to the latter in the heat of the moment is not proof of the former. Some words, he contends, have entered the lexicon as go-to insults, and their use under provocation implies no judgement. Nevertheless, Mourad feared for Bastareaud and his date with due process. Sure enough, Bastareaud copped his ban.
Mourad insists Bastareaud is not homophobic – and he’s probably right. Folau, though, holds religious beliefs, formulated in the first century AD, which condemn homosexuals. RA reckon he’s free to believe what he likes, which is hard to deny, but maintaining the right to say these beliefs out loud is a more troublesome contention. Needless to say, if Folau had made his comments according to race or gender, the outcome would have been different.
These are issues way beyond the scope of a rugby disciplinary. All power to Mourad for saying as much. Sometimes he comes across as barking mad, but if to be mad is to be oblivious to the restraints of convention we should not fear, still less fine, its manifestations. Mourad may be beyond the usual formula of authority and the rebel, but there is much truth amid his outrageousness.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now